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We see it everywhere. Ranging from fashion statements, to practical gear, to people pretending to be something they aren’t. I’m of course talking about military surplus gear and equipment, and how it can be useful – or not useful to the average homesteader, prepper or survivor. Governments have been selling or giving away surplus military equipment from around the time caveman Ogg had too many rocks stockpiled in the back of the cave, and Grock made them obsolete with the sharp pointy stick.
Often durable, usually cheap and very convenient military surplus gear ranges from obsoleted firearms and excess ammo supplies to outdated uniform patterns, or simply just stuff that has sat around for too long, or is considered too worn out for military use. The rugged and durable nature of military gear makes it attractive to preppers, but is it always your best choice?
As I sit here writing this, I have a pair of late 1990’s combat boots sitting in a corner that I wear in bad weather or in the woods, have an old Finnish Mosin Nagant rifle that was surplused out decades ago – along with a supply of Soviet bloc ammo for it, and a handful of assorted backpacks, knives, bayonets, and other assorted fiddly bits of military surplus (or milsurp for short.) Some of it is cool, some of it is collectible, some of it is genuinely useful, and some is just stuff I picked up somewhere and forgot about.
Now I live near a large joint Army and Air Force base. This stuff is common and cheap around here. But let’s look at what is and isn’t useful and when you might want to draw the line about using or buying milsurp gear.
I’ll assume you aren’t working with stuff that is so worn out as to not be useful. Now don’t get me wrong, sometimes you run across stuff that is just beyond use, save for maybe salvaging materials. Backpacks with holes and torn off webbing, uniforms that are threadbare and ragged, ponchos that won’t repel water, weird ammo from some strange corner of the world that was last touched sometime around WWII, the list goes on and on.
Now some things should be self-evident to the prepper and homesteader about milsurp gear. If it is good enough to take to war, it is good enough to use out in the woods or on the farm, or when the proverbial feces hit the spinning fan blades. This means backpacks, clothing, footwear, tents, sleeping bags, and various other sundry items can be invaluable to the prepper – especially the prepper on a budget.
For less than the price of new equipment, one can often find milsurp gear with plenty of life left in it to use in your prepping. My favorites are the various flavors of MOLLE backpacks, and whatever clothing and uniform parts you might come across that suit your needs.
I’ve got a couple of pairs of combat boots I keep around for rough work, and some various bits and pieces of cold and foul weather gear from three different countries. You can also find blankets, sleeping bags, and even tents at a fraction of the cost of new production gear.
This is to say nothing of all manner of different mess kits, small tools, and even chemicals like gun oils and lube, emergency survival gear, hand tools, all kinds of different rugged cases and ammo cans, and who knows what else… If you can’t walk into an army surplus store and not walk out with prepper supplies, something has gone wrong.
While it’s pretty obvious that there are a lot of great opportunities with military surplus, there are a lot of pitfalls too. Generally, there are three reasons stuff is surplused out by a military – it’s worn out, it’s obsolete, or it’s just too much on hand. Now the first one sometimes means there is still plenty of civilian life left in it, and for the most part, obsolete gear is just fine. But let’s look a little closer at the problems of worn out or obsolete gear.
Sometimes worn out gear is beyond hope. Clothing is torn, ripped and generally unserviceable. Outdoor gear may have lost all waterproofing and might leak, and probably is also physically damaged. It might be salvageable, or it might not. Gear like gas masks and other protective clothing should probably be avoided as it may be too old to be guaranteed effective. Do you want to bet your life on a gas mask or chemical protective suits that the army discarded?
Useless and damaged gear is easy to sort out though. But there are more subtle problems that come from using military surplus in your preps – both practical and social.
It is a hard truth that outside of certain items of clothing like boots and field jackets, military surplus gear isn’t exactly considered fashionable. Now your average prepper probably doesn’t care about this, but consider a few things; milsurp gear sticks out like a sore thumb in a regular environment and can carry negative social connotations.
In most places, a bit of milsurp gear won’t be noticeable outside of a business environment, but the more you visibly use, the more you might appear to be part of an outlier population. Which means you’ll be more readily noticed. On top of that, there are always people who get irrationally upset over the use of anything that looks military issued. I once had a person follow me for a block yelling at me for impersonating a soldier because I had an old army issued backpack. Good times.
Some preppers prefer more discreet gear as well, believing that when they have to bug out or travel during an emergency, having milsurp gear simply advertises that they are prepared and probably carrying valuable supplies or weapons that might be desirable in an emergency, or would attract other unwanted attention.
Weird social hangups and such aside, sometimes milsurp just isn’t the best choice. It tends to be overbuilt – which isn’t a bad thing until you realize that you aren’t carrying an 80-pound combat load under fire and that a civilian pack would have been lighter and more comfortable to wear. The same goes for clothing. In almost every circumstance you can find civilian gear that is lighter, comfortable and blends in with the general population. But on the other hand that gear is usually more expensive and might not be as utterly rugged and durable.
Picking Your Gear
What kind of milsurp you invest in is up to you, and heavily depends on what sort of preps you make, or what you need around the homestead – or even what you might choose to collect. I’ve variously had army surplus sleeping bags, blankets, tents, lanterns, boots, packs, jackets, various foul weather gear, and even some weapons and ammo.
I think anybody putting together survival supplies should at least look at military surplus backpacks and load bearing gear. They are cheap, rugged and usually have plenty of aftermarket support. Modern MOLLE packs have plenty of civilian counterparts, which means a steady supply of accessories and upgrades to your gear.
If you can find it in good shape, foul weather gear like ponchos and various GoreTex items are usually extremely affordable as military surplus, and will serve you for many years. On another front, surplus ammo cans and munitions storage cans are fantastic for many different uses. Because they are both rugged and designed to be waterproof, there is almost no limit on how you can use them to store all sorts of supplies.
But as a general rule, take a look around you, and then head to a local surplus store, or visit surplus dealers online. I like to buy most milsurp gear in person so I can be certain that any wear or damage is acceptable to me. All too often I’ve gotten stuff that is too beat up or damaged to be useful when I’ve bought without first taking a look.
Preppers, homesteaders and the budget-conscious have been using military surplus gear for as long as there has been military surplus on the market. I used to own an old Civil War-era musket that had been modified into a hunting gun – one wonders how many meals that old beast put on a farmer’s table. Today’s modern military consumes – and surpluses gear at an incredible rate, leaving a thriving market for surplus in its wake.
The clever prepper can take advantage of this, and stretch their dollar further by carefully selecting the right sort of gear that suits their particular needs. There is almost no limit to the way that a person can outfit themselves with surplus equipment, or how they can use it to supplement their preps. You don’t have to go all out crazy Rambo militia nutter either. Plenty of folks from all walks of life make use of surplus military goods, and there is no reason why you shouldn’t either.
Steve Coffman is a freelance writer and consulting historian. He has a BA in US history from The Evergreen State College and lives near Tacoma, Washington. He collects antique telephone insulators and is presently researching labor union relations in Washington State during WWI.